Monday, July 8, 2019

John White's "The Contemporary Western"

John White teaches film studies at Anglia Ruskin University in Cambridge. He is co-editor of Fifty Key British Films (2008), Fifty Key American Films (2009) and The Routledge Encyclopedia of Films (2014). He recently contributed chapters to books on Budd Boetticher and Delmer Daves in the Edinburgh University Press ReFocus series, and is the author of Westerns (2011) and European Art Cinema (2017).

White applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, The Contemporary Western: An American Genre Post 9/11, and reported the following:
From page 99:
In acknowledging Glass’s story as one amongst many used in the formation of U.S. national identity, we are beginning to consider the concept of ‘American exceptionalism’. In order to understand America and Americans as in some ways ‘special’ and ‘exceptional’ when measured against other peoples of the world it is necessary to continually re-work and re-present the foundation myths of national identity to Americans (and to the world). Hilde Eliassen Restad suggests the idea of ‘American exceptionalism’ is ‘a real and significant phenomenon’ that has had a profound influence on U.S. foreign policy. ‘American exceptionalism entails viewing the United States as better than all other nations,’ says Restad. ‘This is different from patriotism… If one does not believe that American exceptionalism means better rather than different, one’s Americanness is open to questioning.’ While challenging the way the concept has been employed in recent decades, Godfrey Hodgson recognises the crucial importance of the idea. ‘Each phase of American history has strengthened the perception among many Americans that the United States is not just one nation among many but a nation marked by the finger of destiny,’ he says. In The Rhetoric of American Exceptionalism: Critical Essays, Jason A. Edwards and David Weiss recognise the importance of ‘American heroes’ as ‘embodiments of American exceptionalism’ representing ‘everything that the United States is and could be’ while also pointing out that ‘the images of these heroes are malleable.’ William V. Spanos suggests ‘the myth of American exceptionalism’ took its lead ‘from the exemplary self-reliant pioneering or westering spirit of the archetypal backwoodsman or frontiersman’ which is where Glass and others of his ilk would seem to come in.

Spanos says the idea of exceptionalism became ‘accepted as the essence or truth of the American national identity until it was rendered problematic during the Vietnam War (only to be recuperated in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon on September 11, 2001).’ After the Vietnam War, he suggests there was a ‘systematic forgetting’ of ‘historical actualities’ that was achieved ‘by way of the combined efforts of the American government, the media, and Hollywood… to recuperate the consensus, that is, the American identity.’ In his phrase, ‘the narcotics of the culture industry’ was part of the processing of the Vietnam War by American society that enabled the Gulf War of 1991 to be undertaken. Amnesia over Vietnam was then aided by the events of 9/11 to create a ‘fervor’ out of which it was possible to announce, ‘more or less unilaterally… and in defiance of international law,’ a ‘global “war on terrorism”.’
I didn’t think for a minute that this approach to a book could work but (in my mind, at least) it seems to in this case. Page 99 from The Contemporary Western: An American Genre Post-9/11 (as above) is part of a chapter in the book that considers The Revenant (Alejandro González Iñárritu, 2016) with its focus on the brutal and brutalising experience of life faced by Hugh Glass (Leonardo DiCaprio). In its intense focus on the United States and its position as seen by itself (and others) on the world stage this page captures very nicely the central hub of the book.
Learn more about The Contemporary Western at the publisher's website.

--Marshal Zeringue